The October Country 2

The second phase of the current writing project is finished; now I have time to write about other stuff, at least for a day or so.

coverrrrrI bought the Scream Factory blu-ray of Lifeforce months ago, then allowed it to languish while I watched and did other things. I thought October would be a swell month to finally drag it out, and I’d be lying if I said seeing Gravity didn’t cause me to kick it to the top of the pile.

The default presentation in the blu is a longer, “approved” cut – I seem to recall reading this was a European version or somesuch, but I was rewarded with a lengthier opening sequence of the joint British/American research mission discovering a derelict alien space ship in the coma of Halley’s Comet. The opening now plays out like a mini horror movie in its own right, and helps the whole affair seem much more solid.

First, as gratifying as it was to see a space shuttle still being used in Gravity, it was even better seeing one with a nuclear engine being used to study a comet, because back in 1985 we still had money to spend on such frippery. (We also thought Halley was going to be the prominent presence in the sky that is presented in the movie, but oh well).

"We can't stop here! This is Bat Country!"

“We can’t stop here! This is Bat Country!”

You likely know the rest of the plot by now: amongst the dead giant bat occupants of the alien ship, three distinctly human bodies are found in crystal cylinders. These are removed and taken back to Earth, where it is discovered that they aren’t humans, but the creatures the vampire myths were based upon. One – Mathilda May (twenty years old at the time and gloriously nude for most of the movie) escapes, and starts unleashing a vampire plague upon the land, She is pursued by British spook Peter Firth (at the time likely best known in the States for Equus) and an even-higher-strung-than-usual Steve Railsback.

This is based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, which I dutifully read back in ’77 or so when it was published in paperback. I don’t remember much about it, except that the movie, ahem, doesn’t follow it too closely. I’m not even sure it could, given the ultimate climax concerning two different races of energy beings with neo-Lovecraftian names. One thing that does make the jump to celluloid is the vampires’ ability to body jump, which always pisses me off in a movie – I’ve seen it done well, once, and that was in The Hidden, where it was germane to the plot. Generally it is employed as a cost-effective way to complicate matters, and it seems so thrown in at the last minute.

8f01103af1a51388324c81210f61eb34There is one thing the body jumping does provide us, though, and that is a brief but important appearance by a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart (replacing John Gielgud, no less) as an unlikely victim of the body jumper, and there is one moment, when Railsback is speaking to her through the drugged Stewart, that you get the uncanny feeling that yes, there is a woman behind Stewart’s eyes; it is literally one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen, and I have been in awe of the man ever since.

Lifeforce is flawed, there is no denying that, but it somehow remains entertaining despite those flaws, and with a general (almost gleeful) streak of sexual perversity running throughout, it’s also memorable. Time has been kind to it.

And then I looked sadly at my handful of Scream Factory blus beside Lifeforce and  Prince of Darkness – The Howling, The Fog, Prison, From Beyond, The Vampire Lovers – movies I have already seen, some many times – and I realized that if there was any rationale behind these Movie Challenge thingies, it was to drive myself to experience new movies. So I sadly shuttled those old friends aside and reshuffled the Halloween stack to include movies I had not yet seen.

First up: Sinister.

SinisterMoviePoster2012Ethan Hawke is Elliot Oswalt, a writer of true crime books who is now in the tenth year past his hit debut novel. Desperate to get his mojo back, he moves his family into a house where a family was murdered and their youngest daughter disappeared – without telling his wife or two children about that little detail.  His prevarication, when his wifes asks him if they just moved three houses away from a crime scene, a simple “No…” is amusing, and will, of course, return to bite him on the butt.

In the houses attic, Elliot finds a box of 8mm movies and a projector, and to his horror, he finds that one is a movie of the family’s murder filmed while it was happening. The others are similar massacres taking place back through the 60s, and Elliot realizes his book is now about a serial killer. Researching symbols half-seen in the footage, he also begins to realize that he is on the track of something much, much older than the 1960s and much, much worse than a serial killer.

film-sinister-splshSinister has been described as Ramsey Campbell Lite; I can’t testify, because all my attempts at reading Campbell have failed. I should probably try again, now that I’m older and calmer, because I really liked Sinister. It has a good, linear progression as the mystery is teased out, and if there is a failing, it’s that somebody needs to teach Elliot Oswalt how to use a light switch. The first scary trek through the house takes place during a power outage, but we have later long trips through the darkened house with Ethan Hawke obliviously creeping past countless light switches and lamps. Were I in his situation, screw the electric bill, all lights go on at dusk and stay on until dawn.

Or, as my son put it, it’s brighter outside the house at night than inside.

Good cast, great direction from Scott Derrickson, previously known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose (didn’t see) and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which had its good points).  A horror movie that starts out strong and manages to ratchet up the tension throughout. Highly recommended.

And then things went raaaaaather south on me.

The_Visitor_VideoCoverI had been aware, on some level, of The Visitor for years, mostly in a mental folder labeled DON’T BOTHER. Then The Projection Booth podcast said some interesting things about it, and I relented and even put it on my Letterboxd Watch List. Then Diabolik DVD had a sale on Code Red DVDs, and one of them was The Visitor, and that is how events do conspire against me.

First, know that this movie is unaccountably star-studded: John Huston, Lance Henricksen, Franco Nero, Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah!!! all of them doing their best. Hell, even the second stringers are really good, Joanne Nail putting out a vulnerable Lee Remick vibe (we’ll soon see why that is important), and Paige Connor as the Baddest of Seeds. It’s just… this movie, man. This freakin’ movie.

It starts with Jesus (Nero) telling us of the battle between the Captain (Huston) and Satan, or, more properly, SATEEN (Satan apparently has very good copyright lawyers). Sateen is broken into several parts to be reborn piecemeal, and Huston keeps hunting the pieces down. In this case, it’s Paige Connor, a girl in Atlanta (the movie does present a pretty neat time capsule of Atlanta in the late 70s). Her mom is being pressured by Lance Henriksen to marry him and have a son, who will also be Sateen, which is important to the shadowy Committee that needs more Sateen in the world (headed by Mel Ferrer).

Cosmic, man.

Cosmic, man.

Paige has telekinetic powers (and a thick Southern accent that they should have just gone with, instead of trying to suppress it) which enables her to shoot her mom in the back without touching the gun. Mom, now in a wheelchair, still resists Henriksen’s wiles, so the Committee has her kidnapped and artificially inseminated.  Shelley Winters comes in as a nanny who takes no guff from our little monster (Connor complains that Winters actually hit her in their confrontation scene), yet doesn’t get Carrie White-ed. Not so lucky is Glenn Ford as the cop investigating the shooting, who winds up in a bizarre Omen-inspired death scene.

That is the major problem here – The Visitor is a sci-fi inflected Omen where the Damian character wants a sibling, but then keeps following other, time-consuming paths that ultimately lead nowhere. Huston keeps cropping up with an army of shaven-headed monks, but he never really does much until the end, after an attempt to copy the climax of Close Encounters with ten bucks and some flashlights.

WHOA! I'M PEAKING, MAN! I'M PEAKING!

WHOA! I’M PEAKING, MAN! I’M PEAKING!

I suppose it was all worth it to see Peckinpah as an actor. He turns in a very real, sympathetic and gentle portrayal as Nail’s former husband, a doctor who performs an abortion when Mom realizes exactly what has been done to her. Even more surprising when you hear Peckinpah on set was, well, Peckinpah. Abusive, probably drunk. His role was cut down considerably, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that I got no intimation of that while watching.

Maddeningly oblique as to what exactly is the endgame Connor and Huston are moving toward, even after seeing the whole thing, The Visitor… well, it must be art, because I don’t get it. It is fun to watch Huston and Peckinpah, though.

Do not take that as a recommendation.

Here witness the astoundingly inappropriate music apparently on vacation from an Italian crime drama:

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part two

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Poster - Rio Bravo_01Earlier this year, in the course of another challenge, I said that The Searchers is likely the Ultimate Western. That’s the sort of generalization that gives you pause, once you’ve made it, over and over again, as you think of other movies that might fit that position just as well. Its scope is not as broad, but that’s also a strength for Rio Bravo, the Other Ultimate Western.

This was director Howard Hawks’ first movie after a four-year hiatus following the critical and box office failure of Land of the Pharaohs. He had some things to prove to a lot of people, not least of all himself, and the result is a movie that is so darned good he took some its best parts and re-used them again seven years later in El Dorado.

Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) locks up Joe Burdette (an astonishingly young – and thin – Claude Akins), the younger brother of the local ruthless cattle baron, for murder. This prompts big brother to seal up the town and start importing gunslingers to free Joe before the federal Marshall arrives in six days. Chance recruits his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin) an alcoholic struggling to regain his sobriety and self-respect, and eventually Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a preternaturally calm and competent young gun. He’s already got cantankerous cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan, sans teeth) overseeing the jail with a shotgun and an unending stream of invective.

rio_bravoInto this siege situation Hawks also drops Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a peripatetic gambler who chooses to settle in Rio Bravo when she takes a shine to the Sheriff. Dickinson here is lucky to get the role of a typical Hawks woman, preferring the company of men to her own sex, easily the equal of any of them. Wayne the actor seems honestly uncomfortable with the idea of a love affair with a woman who is almost literally half his age, and that somehow makes The Duke adorable. But this movie also marks an important turning point in his career – Wayne is obviously no longer a young man, and here begins the line of movies dealing with that fact, through the 60s and eventually into True Grit and Rooster Cogburn.

Martin and Nelson seem like stunt casting, and that may be true in Nelson’s case, at the height of his popularity in the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but Martin definitely worked hard for the role. It benefited his acting chops considerably when Hawks wouldn’t let him get away with his usual nightclub drunk schtick – Martin sinks his teeth into the uglier, pathetic parts of drying out, and when he finally gets his mojo back, it is a triumphant, memorable moment.

It’s easy to fantasize that you can pick and choose between the casts of this and El Dorado and swap out Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, James Caan for Ricky Nelson… but truthfully, both movies are just fine the way they are.

The Big Sleep (1946)

el_sueno_eterno_1946_2It’s really ideal when you can follow a Hawks movie with a Hawks movie.

Humphrey by-God Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, prototypical private eye. He’s hired by the aging and slowly dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron in his final role) to clear up the matter of some gambling debts and possible blackmail against one or both of his wild daughters (the elder of whom is Lauren Bacall). Of course, since this is from a Raymond Chandler novel, nothing is as simple as it first seems.

Rather famously, The Big Sleep was held over from its original release date to A) clear out Warner Brothers’ inventory of war movies when World War II ended earlier than Warner had scheduled; and B) to punch up Lauren Bacall’s character, reshooting several scenes and adding others a year after the original shooting had wrapped.  1944’s To Have and Have Not was a tremendous hit thanks in large part to the Hawksian chemistry between Bacall and Bogart (and obvious sexual heat, needless to say).

But you don’t monkey with the structure of a complex plot like Chandler’s without paying a price, and The Big Sleep‘s gets pretty muddled to accommodate the new dynamics. I was thankful I’d gone out of my way to see the more linear 1978 version with Robert Mitchum a couple of years back, it helped anchor me through the turmoil.

Still, it’s a good ride. Past the banter betwixt its two stars, you could spot this as a Hawks movie by the incidental characters: Marlowe keeps running into charming, attractive women doing their jobs – in one case, a normally male job like a cabbie – doing them well, and with enough smarts and sass to impress Marlowe. probably past their time in the story (were it not for Bacall, if you catch my drift). Lucky goddamn Marlowe.

Beat the Devil (1953)

large_tmtx7hDqcZGYyQ8H76I7ZKOumgmI didn’t have another Hawks movie on tap, so instead I went for more Bogart.

Beat the Devil is an odd bird, and most people don’t seem to know what to make of it. You have a collection of four rogues headed by Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, and they’ve thrown in with Bogart to purchase some land in Africa that they suspect is rich in Uranium. This setup is complicated by the fact that they are marooned in Italy while their steamer is repaired or the captain sobers up – “More than a day, less than a fortnight.” Also complicating matters is a British couple, the Chelms: the stuffy husband and the brilliant but talkative wife (Jennifer Jones), who has an overactive imagination that leads the rogues down all sorts of false assumptive trails.

That isn’t complicated enough? Bogart and Jones fall in love, and oh, didn’t I mention Bogart is married to Gina Lollobrigida? Gina is an ardent Anglophile who falls for Mr. Chelm.

It gets even more complicated than that, but this is another movie that depends on the joy of discovery, so let me just leave it at that. This is a stellar spoof of adventure movies with foreign no-goodniks in pursuit of atomic gold, and honestly, the only thing missing is Sydney Greenstreet, who had retired in 1949, suffering from diabetes and Bright’s Disease (which had plagued him through most of his movie career). Robert Morley rises suitably to the occasion, however.

Matters weren’t helped by the movie posters proclaiming “The Bold Adventure That Beats them All!” “Adventure At Its Boldest! Bogart At His Best!” Nobody went into Beat The Devil expecting an hour and a half of banter so dry you could make a martini with it (Truman Capote is a credited writer). Everybody plays it deadly serious, making it even more hilarious. Bogart is smart enough to just lean back and let chaos reign around him. And did I mention the director was John Huston? Yeah, this nestles between Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick.

Beat the Devil is definitely an odd creature. Enjoyable, as long as you know what sort of movie you’re going to get. Have a nice three-minute clip from early on…

Stagecoach (1939)

Poster - Stagecoach (1939)_03Out of Hawks and Bogey, I might as well bookend this with more John Wayne, right?

Stagecoach marks a number of notable firsts. It’s John Ford’s first movie shot in Monument Valley, and the first of a long line of collaborations with John Wayne. Wayne had, by this time, made a slew of B-Westerns. That worked against him in the casting process, but when Gary Cooper wanted too much money, Ford finally got Wayne.

Stagecoach takes a basic dramatic premise and plays it for all its worth: Throw a bunch of disparate characters in an enclosed space, put that space in danger, and let events play out. The title coach is making a regularly scheduled run, complicated by the presence of Geronimo on the warpath. The cast includes an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) being  exiled from the town, and ditto a “fallen woman”, Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose crimes are never elaborated upon, since it’s still 1939. There is also a woman trying desperately to meet up with her Cavalry officer husband, a roguish gambler who takes her under protective wing (John Carradine, superb as ever), a banker running away with a mining company’s payroll (it’s also still the Great Depression, so boo hiss at the Banker), and a whiskey salesman whose sample case is going to be decimated by the doctor. And then they pick up the Ringo Kid (Wayne) on the way. He’s escaped prison to avenge the murder of his family by the Plummer Brothers, and unfortunately for him, the Sheriff is riding shotgun on the coach.

That’s quite a cast, and I didn’t even mention Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver. At this far remove, it is interesting to note that of this solid, often powerhouse group, Claire Trevor was at the time the box office draw.

stagemovieThe group dynamics shift throughout the journey, especially when the promised cavalry escorts keep getting called away to chase Geronimo. The scalawag Banker and the Officer’s Wife (and therefore The Gambler) want to keep pushing on, despite the danger – though the group is forced to shelter in place when the sickly wife is found to be pregnant and the doctor has to go into hyper-sober-up to get her through a difficult delivery, aided by the prostitute. During all this, the guileless and somewhat naive Ringo Kid falls for Dallas, thinking her just another lady; when they eventually arrive at their destination he’ll find out different, and it won’t matter.

That brief paragraph doesn’t begin to even outline the complexities of character and plot breezed through by Stagecoach in a mere 96 minutes. Viewing an extra on the Criterion DVD, a video essay by Ted Gallagher about Ford’s visual style, you find out how Ford threw exposition and character development simply by where he chose to point the camera in any given scene, and you realize that you are dealing with a director working several degrees above most of us. Tremendously humbling.

There are many, many reasons to watch Stagecoach, but I’m going to instead leave you with another first: the hat John Wayne wears as the Ringo Kid, he would wear in many another Western; its final appearance is as the beat-to-shit hat Chance wears in Rio Bravo, after the which the Duke finally retired it and kept it under glass in his house.

I love it when we can circle back like that.